Health & Wellness

Combatting Loneliness

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It’s normal to feel lonely sometimes, but if that feeling becomes chronic, it’s time to act

By Wendy Haaf


It’s ironic that while in some ways, we’re more connected than ever before thanks to technology, as a society, we may be lonelier than ever. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic introduced “physical distancing” into our lexicon, an estimated one in five Canadians experienced loneliness, and in a survey conducted between May 29 and June 1, 2020, on behalf of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, nearly 24 per cent of respondents reported feeling lonely occasionally or most of the time in the previous week. Apart from the sheer psychological misery loneliness can cause, for older adults in particular, it seems to wreak physical havoc, too, increasing the risk for problems ranging from heart disease to premature death.

But while it may be common and even normal to feel lonely at least some of the time, there are many things we can do to lift our spirits and those of the people close to us while lessening the likelihood that loneliness will set off a self-perpetuating cycle.

Pinpoint the problem.

Solving any problem starts with recognizing it and then admitting to it, but with loneliness, that can be harder than you might think; loneliness can lead to other difficulties that distract from their underlying causes.

“Some of the signs and symptoms to look out for are impulsive buying; changes in appetite; restless sleep; fatigue and lack of energy; difficulty concentrating; substance use; feeling irritable, tearful, or anxious; and even body aches and pains,” notes Laura Moore, a therapist with Toronto’s Centre for Interpersonal Relationships who helps support clients in resolving difficulties related to loneliness and relationships. Since virtually all of these warning signs can also herald depression, it’s not always easy to distinguish the true culprit. Furthermore, some of these issues may in turn foster behaviours and thinking patterns that can lead to and deepen depression.

“When people are depressed, one of the first signs is that they become more withdrawn, and when you do that, you self-isolate,” says Adriana Shnall, the program director of Baycrest@Home clinical services at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences. Depressed people also tend to view the world and themselves negatively, and often ruminate on these pessimistic thoughts. “You think people don’t like you, you don’t like yourself, you feel guilty,” Shnall says. “So, Of course, my daughter doesn’t call me, because I’m a terrible mother—this is the thought process that happens.”

Enlist expert help.

“Another thing that’s really important is to talk to your doctor,” Shnall advises. Not only can your practitioner help tease apart whether you’re lonely or depressed, he or she may be able to address conditions, such as incontinence, that may be holding you back from interacting with others, and where necessary, refer you to other health professionals, such as a therapist or other counsellor. Your physician or a member of your family health team may also be able to direct you to programs and resources in your community.

If you don’t have a primary care provider, “there’s Canada 211 [], which is a central-intake service that can help match people to services in their area,” says Dr. Amy Freedman, a physician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and a co-author of a review of relevant studies that was published in Canadian Family Physician in March. “Help navigating the system is free,” she says. “People shouldn’t be expected, when they’re coping with so much, to find those solutions themselves.”

Marshall mental resources.

Let’s start with that gloomy inner voice. “Perceived loneliness is often due to negative or irrational interpretations of your present circumstances,” Moore says. “Challenging your negative thoughts and finding contrary evidence against them can be very effective.” For instance, that friend who hasn’t called may not be angry or losing interest, but busy with overwhelming family commitments or having a difficult time herself. In fact, addressing this kind of misinterpretation is one of the cornerstones of cognitive behavioural therapy. “If you know you are not defined by your thoughts, you can change your feelings around them, which then changes your behaviour,” Moore explains.

Practising mindfulness can help you acknowledge and accept your feelings, and then let them go in order to move forward. “We know things like meditation can be extraordinarily helpful to put the world into perspective,” says Vickie Cammack, a founder of several organizations dedicated to strengthening one’s community and thus reducing isolation.

“Another thing you can do is keep a gratitude journal,” Shnall suggests, “or even think about three things you’re thankful for each day, just so you’re not sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself.”

Set up a structure.

When we retire, we lose an externally imposed structure and routine that probably allowed for casual social encounters to be sprinkled throughout our day; these may have included greeting colleagues and sparking up conversations in the coffee room. Similarly, sheltering in place during the pandemic may have eliminated opportunities for routine social contact, such as regular lunches with a group of friends.

“One day can blend into the next and lower your activity levels,” Cammack says.

Since we’re all creatures of habit, sticking to a routine can help cut down on the need for decision-making, which helps preserve mental energy and reduces the chance you’ll opt out of activities that bolster your spirits and mental health. For example, if you regard a morning walk as an appointment and dress for it when you get out of bed, you’ll be more likely to follow through.

Get moving.

“Just going out and getting some air and changing your locale” can buoy your mood, Cammack observes. “Movement is really important,” Shnall stresses, for fending off depression and energizing you both physically and mentally. “You don’t have to run a marathon—even 10 minutes at a time, short snippets of something are beneficial,” whether it’s an online workout or a stroll through your neighbourhood, Shnall adds.

Getting outdoors is in itself a good thing to do. “Being out in nature provides a sense of connection, of being part of something bigger than yourself,” Moore explains.

Help someone else.

“Try to find opportunities to be of help, of service to somebody,” Shnall suggests, “because that at least makes you feel useful.” Offering assistance to others gets you out of your own head; and when your offer is accepted, this provides reassurance that the recipient really wants and needs to connect with you, and isn’t just being kind.

One way to help is through volunteering. A bonus is that there’s not necessarily any need to leave your house to do so. “We have volunteers who are supporting older adults with technology, and they do it from their homes,” Shnall says. You can also sign up to chat by telephone with someone who’s socially isolated or to foster pets for a local shelter or rescue organization.

Caring for a companion animal also provides a sense of purpose and automatically engenders routine, in addition to offering some of the same rewards our relationships with humans do.

Cuddling with a cat or dog can satisfy what’s known as “skin-hunger,” our craving for physical touch. And that’s not all. Some studies suggest that playing with a pet, stroking it, or looking into its eyes affects our bodies and brains in much the same way as interacting with a person close to us does, triggering a burst of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that cements social connections and activates our brain’s reward centre. If you don’t have other opportunities for physical contact, even a warm drink or soft blanket may offer some comfort, Moore says.

Foster existing connections.

“In a lot of the literature, the most success in alleviating loneliness was found to be in cultivating relationships that already exist,” Dr. Amy Freedman says.

There are any number of ways you can do this. Pick up the phone and check in on a friend you haven’t heard from in some time, instant-message your cousin in another province, drop a card in the mail to a far-off family member, or surprise your neighbours with a bouquet of flowers or a home-baked treat.

“Don’t wait to be asked,” Vickie Cammack urges. “One of the key lessons I’ve learned after 30 years of thinking about relationships and creating networks around some of the most socially isolated and lonely people imaginable is that we have to be intentional about reaching out.” And don’t give up after one call or visit, she adds.

You can also offer or ask for help with a specific task—perhaps picking up a prescription or installing a smoke alarm. Or see if you can schedule a regular call with one of your kids. Even if nothing comes of it, Shnall says, simply making the effort will help give you a sense of control, which bolsters your defences against depression and anxiety.

And whether you’re reaching out to alleviate your own loneliness or that of someone you’re worried has become isolated, don’t rely on a single person. Reach out to several people—you’re less apt to be disappointed if someone is too busy to respond. In the case of helping others, sharing the task of trying to alleviate another’s loneliness with three or four other people reduces the weight of individual responsibility.

“Then it’s actually quite easy to say yes or no, because you don’t feel you have to help just because nobody else did,” Cammack says. “You think, Maybe somebody else can do Wednesday and I could do the following week.”

Share an interest.

Book clubs, wine clubs, classes, and other groups centred around a particular subject or pastime bring you into contact with other people with whom you have at least one thing in common, helping to fulfill the need for a sense of belonging, which, if unmet, leads to loneliness.

One advantage of our modern world is that we can now connect with people from around the globe who share an interest, whether it’s euchre, a specific breed of dog, or a form of exercise. “A sense of belonging and acceptance can and does happen online,” Moore says.

Connect via technology.

Joining a virtual community is just one way of using technology to connect with others. As noted previously, you can also message friends and relatives regardless of distance, and even use one of a multitude of digital platforms to stage a family get-together or chat via video. “You can FaceTime a baby—it’s been proven that that’s actually a positive social interaction not just for the child, but for the grandparent,” Moore says.

Windsor, ON, retiree Helen Bratzel says that during COVID-necessitated sheltering in place, a group Facebook chat with two friends from choir became invaluable. These virtual meetings routinely facilitated weekly online lunches, as well as messaging to share COVID-related intel such as which grocery stores were offering delivery. “Being able to be with my friends has made a huge difference for me,” she says. “I started doing a virtual exercise class because one friend was doing it; she tried meditation because I was doing it. We’ve been great supports for one another.”

Bratzel’s experience points to yet another boon of digital interactions. “What we discovered in our work was that when people have regular online connections, it actually leads to more face-to-face contact,” Cammack says. “For instance, chatting with that distant cousin in another province might ultimately prompt you to visit one day.”

It’s important, however, to set limits on screen time so that it doesn’t cut into other pursuits that play an important role in maintaining your mental health, such as exercise and sleep.

Ask for advice.

A strategy that can help nurture new relationships and shore up existing ones, whether with your next-door neighbour or a friend on social media, is asking questions, such as whether the person can recommend anything to you, from a Netflix series or a good book to a favourite recipe. “People love to give advice, for one thing,” Cammack observes. “This also creates the opportunity for a back-and-forth, because if you get a great recipe and try it, you can talk about that.”

In the end, “Loneliness is a universal human experience linked to a universal call to connect and care for one another,” Cammack says. “That caring is who we are—and who we want to be.”

Photo: iStock/PeopleImages.

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